Backed by Evonik
Since its founding in 2017, Castor has been through two funding rounds, the latest of which was joined by Chartered Group, Tel-Aviv University’s venture capital fund TAU Ventures and by Evonik Venture Capital, the venture arm of specialty chemicals giant Evonik.
The investment offers benefits to both sides. It was an attractive one for Evonik, as it enabled the company to expand beyond selling materials and into services by allowing customers to test printability of their parts.
Blaier: “In the high-level 3D printing arena, there is a movement for large materials companies to reach out to end users. Until now, what happened was that materials companies sold their materials to a 3Dprinting OEM company, such as Stratasys, HP, GE for example. Now, however, these companies are reaching out to the end user to hear and learn about their needs - and based on the feedback they receive, to improve their material. We have seen some large acquisitions this year in this sphere, and we’re part of this movement.”
Castor developed a 3D Screener tool that can be found on Evonik’s website that offers anyone the option of uploading their CAD files to check whether their product is suitable for 3D printing using Evonik’s high-performance polymer powders and filament materials. The tool brings Evonik into closer contact with end users, giving the company more insight into customer needs and preferences.
Evonik is but one of the big resin producers that have developed specific materials for the 3D printing market. According to Blaier, it is very difficult for these companies to highlight the pros and cons or benefits of their material versus that of the competition.
“The first thing our software does is find the 3D printing material that matches the material used in the traditional production of the part in terms of mechanical properties,” he explained. “A user might consider heat resistance very important. Or cost. In other words, there might be two different answers as to what’s the best match in 3D printing. The user can express these preferences in the software, which then automatically identifies the best match material.”
The opportunities are everywhere
While Castor is currently very focussed on the machinery industry, which is characterised by low volume/high complex or low volume/high mix products, any company doing this kind of manufacturing is a potential customer.
The machinery industry, however, with its large machines or large products combined from many different parts offers particular scope for benefitting from AM. Each component contributes to a company’s costs. Using software to identify cost-reduction opportunities – for example, by combining parts, reducing weight, or even 3D printing the product as is rather than using traditional production technologies – can save significant amounts for the company.
“We have 85 companies using our software, including companies such as Stanley Black & Decker, AB InBev, and of course, Evonik,” Blaier disclosed.
“Take AB InBev, for example. The company has something like 400 breweries around the world, and a huge inventory of spare parts they need to maintain in case of breakage. They use us to identify the opportunities to replace the traditional manufacturing method by 3D printing - a good example of low volume/high mix.”
Additive manufacturing may be finding its way into an increasing number of manufacturing processes, but it is unlikely to ever wholly replace the mass production methods, such as injection moulding or diecasting for metal, used today.
“It will enlarge the pie in terms of the volumes needed that make sense for the breakeven point financially versus the traditional manufacturing method, taking a larger part in the first 1000 – 5000 or 10000 units that the company needs to produce.
But it still is a huge market and a market offering great opportunity,” he noted.
It is also a market that is still very much seeking to establish itself. Right now, the price per part is falling, mainly due to the fact that more and more companies are entering the 3D printing space.
In addition, more and more applications are developing with specific needs that 3D printing can fulfil.
“The automotive industry, aerospace and medical devices are leading the way in this world,” Blaier said. “Also, end use manufacturing is on the rise - but only in specific verticals, specific needs, and specific niche cases where 3D printing is right to replace traditional manufacturing processes.”
Finally, AM is very much in tune with the drive for sustainability within the industry. The technology offers manufacturing on demand, which provides savings on transportation and inventory costs; it reduces weight, which means less material is used, and - in automotive and aerospace applications – a lower fuel consumption; the technology provides maximum geometric design freedom, enabling the direct fabrication of complex parts in a single step, which leads to lower assembly costs. And lastly, because it is additive, only material needed for production is used, which means little to no waste.
Technology versus customer value
One frequently heard criticism of 3D printing is the gap between the mechanical properties or material properties of a traditionally produced part compared to those of a 3D printed part. Some additive manufacturing technologies and materials offer better part integrity than others – isotropic polymers used in powder-based solutions tend to offer better properties than filament-based solutions – but traditional injection moulding will provide a ‘better’ product.
“The point is, using our software, we can show the end user or customer the benefits that can be obtained with additive manufacturing, such as accelerating time to market, reducing costs or weight, and reducing complexity. Offsetting these benefits against the slight compromise in mechanical properties or the material properties, it soon becomes clear that 3D printing offers an interesting alternative. Engineers need to understand the cost-saving benefits if they are to make this compromise,” Blaier clarified.
“Additive manufacturing is adding layers, layer on layer,” he continued. “There is a perception that the material properties might be a little less than traditional manufacturing methods can provide. But the technology is getting better and better in bridging this gap. We provide the innovation to show the user what are the benefits are versus the compromises that need to be made in terms of strength, elongation at break, heat resistance or whatever. It is all part of the software – and why it is called a decision support system for utilizing industrial 3D printing.”
An additional, important benefit is the fact that additive manufacturing fits seamlessly into a company’s Industry 4.0 overall strategy. The technology is, said Blaier, ‘a digital native’: it is based on a digital file created from a design file, which means that companies must, to some extent, be prepared to embark on the digital path if they are to adopt this technology.
Although some may feel intimidated by the technology or hesitant about the cost, in the end it all comes down to whether or not a customer can perceive the overall value of Industry 4.0 and digitalisation.
As Blaier phrased it: “Unlike a return on investment calculation, or marketing or other aspects of the business, Industry 4.0 is a small improvement in a lot of areas on the production floor or in the production method, rather than a huge improvement in a specific area and companies need patience to gather those small pieces of improvement and understand it.”
Going forward, additive manufacturing will continue to shift in the direction of end-use manufacturing: the production of end-use parts in an end-use environment, rather than simply prototyping, or the production of tools, jigs or fixtures, for use in the production line, said Blaier.
“I am talking about really going into end-use manufacturing. We want to help companies be the first when that starts happening. Castor is now developing an enterprise tier, which means we are working intensively on gaining a connection to the environment - the PLM and ERP systems, the CAD systems that engineers in large enterprises work in.
Our goal is for Castor to be a tool which is embedded within the environment of the engineer, enabling a 3D printing feasibility check. Just imagine an engineer at a company, who is considering using additive manufacturing to produce parts. Overnight, Castor could take the design from the system he uses to save his designs. The software would automatically run the analysis and come back with a report in the morning that says there are, say, ten parts that can save thousands of dollars using 3D printing.
It is the future Castor is working towards, and where we’ll hopefully be, within the next five years.”